Expat: A Wanderlust Case

9 of January

The bus vengefully ricocheted my temple into the window as it jumped over a pothole. I shifted myself downward and tucked my chin into my Beatles muscle tank, a much better- albeit, austere- option for a pillow. The bus was dark, and dwindling conversations between my Mum, Darla, and Tara were voiced behind the slow tempos in my earphones. The bus was struggling along the road in the growing darkness between flourishing, thick jungle, sprawling out onto the road- but the passengers paid no attention because road quality isn’t a luxury in Quintana Roo, and that is a fact we either ignore, don’t mind, or come to accept. The village Chanchen faded farther and deeper into the jungle as the single line of pavement stretched onward, taunting and balled up in fits of mocking laughter at its impossible length.

Still in drive, the van pulled up in front of a palapa five minutes out of the village and a crowd of curious young Mayans had already gathered at the doors. Boys with heart-shaped faces and plastic sandals, girls with intricate hair braids and delicate cheekbones, and all with a calm, slightly fidgety disposition eagerly raced to the doors. Eyes were brimming with excitement, as if the opening of the van had unleashed a flock of doves; something wonderful, majestic, maybe even holy. Instead my family, Darla, Tara, and Luis poured out into the jungle. “Tarla! T0ra!” The kids exclaimed and ran into the arms of the preacher’s wife and the sweet church-goer. I instantly knew I wanted the kids to run to me in that way, one day. But I wasn’t left to want that for long, for as soon as the youth of the village knew my name, I heard it shouted from every corner; my hand was constantly tugged at, and my arms were filled with big hugs from little people.

The Mayan people are easily recognizable with their brown skin, wide eyes, prominent noses, and petit height. Everyone in the village was astonished that Kira, my twelve year old sister, and I were so young. I puffed up my chest a bit at that, proud that I finally wasn’t the shortest one; Kira’s taller than the biggest boy there. We carried in parcels and blankets to hand out, and then quickly delved into our Christmas/New Year’s celebration with pizza, tamarind juice, and thick, frosted cake. The women gathered at the perimeter of the palapa with infants suckling on breasts and in arms, but they didn’t speak, maybe from modesty, or maybe because they only spoke Mayan. A group of boys that were the size of seven year olds crowded around me and we shook fists at each other and teased and poked in the way boys do, while I clucked at them- jokingly- with the Spanish that came to mind. They took immense pleasure in tugging at my baseball cap and my belt, flicking the camera backpack to get my attention. I gleefully gave every bit of it to them. “Tienen una pelota para jugar futbol?” I asked them if anyone had a ball to play soccer with, but the boys just shook their heads and we began to speak about other things.

“¿Cuántos años tienes?” They bantered. “Catorce, y tu?” I responded lightly to their disbelieving expressions. The kids looking to be seven year olds told me they were ten, eleven, twelve. One boy was fifteen and didn’t appear a day older than eleven. I smiled. I wanted to gather them up in my arms because I loved them already. I played cat-and-mouse with the boys, held hands and played tag with the girls, calling out, No me pescas! as the adoring, pretty little crowd chased me and giggled at my exaggerated movements.

After the party at the palapa was over, we got back into our vans and drove two minutes down the road, flanked by the natives on foot and on bikes, swarming around the car in small cliques. The friends we had made for the last two hours, and even those we didn’t come to know as well, waved and smiled at us through the windows as if we had been best friends all our lives. The car stopped out in front of a purple stucco home in fairly good condition for the standards of the village and ones’ ability to create and maintain a home from their own hands. Most men don’t stay in Chanchen because they have families and are forced to go out to places like Playa Del Carmen, Tulum, and Cancun to search for job opportunities. Once there though, the men are exposed to life in a town and typically abandon their families back in their village. The men that do stay in Chanchen are drunkards, unable to procure a job or any plausible way to bring in money. They buy their alcohol on credit and quickly drink away their land. Fortunately, the man that owns the purple house is not sick off alcohol all day and has stayed in the village with a successful family. It is through that kind, welcoming home of nine that the Pastor and his wife, Darla, have found refuge with in the village. They facilitate the goods that pass through from sponsors and are leading the stove installations in the homes around Chanchen, so the mothers will no longer have to maintain an open fire in the house all day.

The purple stucco room housed all seven kids in the family, ranging from young adulthood to infancy, plus the two parents. They sleep in woven hammocks in bright hues that are thrown up in the rafters during the day. At five foot two, I was one of the only visitors to the house who didn’t have to slightly bend their neck to get through the squat home. I noticed how monumental storage units would be for the family, who stored their possessions in the open: on tables, on the walls, and under nooks. A small, old fashioned television flickered in a corner. Numerous pairs of raggedy shoes were stuffed so they built a little wall in the far right section of the room. Nine peoples’ lives were all on display for me in the twenty by ten, oval space, and I decided to never forget that room; a testimony to the fact that life is so much more than material, because that Mayan family seemed happier- and more content- than even my family.

Wondering about the yard, which was overflowing with goats, chicken, and turkeys, I came upon one of the younger boys of the stucco home, who was proudly displaying a chicken-wire cage with five jungle birds in it. The fowls appeared to be close cousins of doves, but upon closer examination, I found that they were completely different. The boy plucked one of the birds from the homemade cage and whistled with his tongue, a woody, organic, whoowhoo sound that the birds call out to each other in the deep canopy of the jungle. He caught the birds with his hands by imitating the call and outsmarting them. My conscience’s jaw dropped in a flurry of awe and respect, but on the outside I maintained my cool demeanor and just nodded. “Bueno,” but I couldn’t suppress a hint of a grin.

Chan Chen 1 Chan chen 3 chan chen 4 chan chen 5 chan chen 9 chan chen 11 chan chen 8

20 of January

Apologies for my three week hiatus! I’ve been impossibly preoccupied with the arrival of my grandmother and great aunt, dates out to foster budding friendships and to sink my teeth deeper into my five month affairs, the initiation of homeschooling, and the prospect of what the next three years holds for my family of eight. Right now, it looks as if Playa Del Carmen was the motherboard of ensuing adventures: continuing to further our fluency in Spanish in Chile or Argentina, and then sailing around the Greek Isles for six months. It’s all tentative, of course, which is my favorite part. We travel with the wind in our sails, bags on our back, and the hundreds of thousands of wishes of the dandelion weeds, blowing forevermore into our future and tickling us with our dreams.

I feel equivocally, irreversibly tangled up on the inside. My heart must be squirming like worms, knotted and wriggling at the base of a bait bucket, almost bursting from my ribcage. Justin hasn’t talked to me in two days, the longest time we haven’t spoken for since October. Lots has happened between us: our dreams bumping and colliding and eventually picking the other up and running forward. It’s funny, how best friends work out. You can race to their outstretched arms, free falling in utter bliss, but one day when their arms aren’t there to hold you any more, you free fall into the eye of a tornado. I can’t take my mind off the memories; the way he warmed my fingers between his hands, when we danced to the jazz band playing from a hotel on the beach as the sky grew dark, belting out I’m sorry Ms Jackson on the road, laying side by side, on and on and on. My only partner in consolation is, and always will be, music: a building block of creativity, love, and passion. It has carried me through storms, relieved me of solitude, and held my hand in my most emotional hour.

To really shed some light on what I’m trying to convey to you, here’s a quick trip down my back road. One such occasion, a life-saving, indulgent period of music, occurred during the first week of February, 2013. A good friend of mine, Ajay Anderson, passed away from a brain aneurism at 13. Moments before the aneurism in his head ruptured, I had waved hello to him, and then strolled away, missing my friend’s seizure by about two minutes. I was Ajay’s first visitor in the hospital, and I recall that day with startling clarity. Driving to the hospital in Irvine, laughing about my incompetence with directions as I tried to navigate the way over the phone with a friend, who was visiting as well- it’s all there. I remember swinging open the large, white doors with my petit hands and entering the minuscule operating room Ajay was housed in. I picked my way about the conglomerate of tubes, wires, and medical paraphernalia to my friend’s bedside and one of the nurses stated flatly, “You can talk to him. He can hear you.” I  fixed my eyes on Ajay and skeptically stared down at his pale pallor; there wasn’t even a twitch of an eye to assure me of life, save for the shallow movement of his hospital gown. Suddenly, the floodgates parted like the Red Sea and I couldn’t contain the torrent of bare emotion that rolled out of me, faster and stronger than anything else I’ve ever felt. It was primal; animal. Weeks after, my eclectic group of wayfaring acquaintances from all different walks of life gathered beside his grave in shrouds of black and cried out one of Ajay’s favorite songs, Carry On, in a stifling, stupor arousing, midday heat. I had already sobbed until the towels of tears inside my heart were rung out, but somehow the addition of music to the somber days following Ajay’s death was able to squeeze the last drops of water in my body from my eyes. Music is motion, change, phases and funks, life and death. There is nothing more glorious to me than cantillating Elton John with Mum as she cooks in the kitchen, backseat love to songs with no past or present, only a future, in which they end.

But even though my insides are burning at the stake at this time, I’m trying hard not to dwell on it. You see, two days ago I sat crossed legged at my kitchen table with my beats around my neck and a painting stretched before me, and I attempted to open the eyes of my visiting grandmother and great aunt. In some sort of juxtapose attempt at having Grandma grasp the mindset my family has because of our move to a different country, I spoke haltingly of perspectives. When I lived in California, I thought I was pretty grand for some time. I was consistently at the top of my class, best on my soccer teams, well-liked by peers- a leader sort of personality- and when middle school dropped its nuclear bomb down on me, I found that boys liked me as well. In retrospect, it is quite obvious to an outsider that I fit in and was quite happy with my life, but I never associated myself, in my head, with the other straight-A, it-kid drones. Around the end of sixth grade, it had become unavoidably apparent why I was different from other kids, who go naively through the school system, content as clams to flow through their years at school until they transfer to universities around the States, maybe even Ivy League for some, until they get their diplomas, pats on the back, and are sent off into their “American Dream” lives with firefighter husbands, three kids, and a dog named Skippy. I couldn’t live that seemingly idyllic life because I had a talent: I could write, and I could draw. For years this set me apart from the crowd until my admission into the Orange County School of the Arts, pulling me out of the assembly-line public school system, to my immense benefit. Even as an eighth grader at OCSA, the school was available to grades seven through twelve, the teachers taught in a way geared toward artistically-brained students with exceptional academic records. At this point in time, my five siblings and I had been organic, plant-based vegans for almost two years, were adoption veterans, and Mum was commuting to five different schools in three cities plus sports extra-curriculars Monday through Friday in addition to sports games on the weekends. Kira was traveling a lot for soccer at this time, but I had dropped out of intensive club soccer to commit to my art from six am to late in the evenings during the work week. After a year of this jejune insanity, never stepping back to take a breather, we jumped ship and, in some of my original words on the subject, “we waved sayonara to California, packed our bags, and caught the most convenient flight to Playa. I left behind the art school of my dreams and together we all left the comfort and familiarity of our home that chokes creativity, diversity, and fun.” It was spontaneous, whimsy, and in my opinion, how life is supposed to be. Looking back on the years before I mutinied the rat-race of America, I find I am disgusted with myself. The things I spoke of, the choices I made, my selfish heart and mind, so blind to the world. It became apparent to me have un-grand I was, how petty I was and how impossibly trivial everyone else must be if I was able to distinguish myself as less petty than the masses even then.

The way I see it is that it is impossible to categorize people- throw them all into a box and slap on a label. I cannot even make do with the length of a sentence to chronicle a person, because as humans we are not lost in time. As physical beings we have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We are stories, evolving, corroding, intertwining, nudging other stories, so therefore one label wouldn’t be able to adequately describe anything; instead it is many words all jumbled together that are a person. But there is one word- one label- expat, that I jubilantly claim as a puzzle piece of my label and truly believe that it could solely describe a group of people.

If you look up expatriate, or expat, in the dictionary, you will get a variation of this definition: noun; a person who lives outside their native country. This is all well and good, but the word expat means much more to me than just that, and I know that to the people who are truly, by definition, expatriates, it means a little more to them as well. We rise where the sun sets and can freehand a map of the globe, pinpointing cities and locations numerous as the stars that we belong to. Expats-like-us, we mold and adapt and transform, sliding silently and uninterrupted into cultures and situations as if we had known them all our lives. We speak of ancient philosophy and compare governments in Europe to those in South America. Our dialectic is scattered, roaming over Spanish idiosyncrasies and even unconsciously switching to French in the middle of an excited sentence. We have lived in unfamiliar settings, but it is unfamiliarity that we crave and are comfortable in. Thrill and adventure, hardships and lots of make-doing isn’t a dream: it’s life. And in every way possible, I am thoroughly obliged to be able to categorize myself with such an incredible nation of expats-like-us. On the streets we smile and nod, our own unofficial club of like-minded world-stompers. It is one word that combines an idea, a philosophy, a dream, a lifestyle, and a passion all rolled into one: expat. Expat. How could anyone not fall in love with this life?

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